Cockcroft: Cleveland Indians preview

Looking back at the preseason prognostications, could there have been a bigger disappointment in all of baseball than the Indians? Say what you will about the Chicago White Sox or Atlanta Braves, but these Indians were forecasted by many -- this columnist included -- to make the playoffs, and in some cases, to win the American League Central.

Of course, you can't place the blame on this team's young, improving offensive core. Cleveland boasts one of the best all-around hitters in the game in Travis Hafner, who was on track for a .308 batting average, 51 home runs, 143 RBI, 122 runs scored and 122 walks before suffering a broken right hand on Sept. 1; one of the most promising up-and-coming center fielders and leadoff men in Grady Sizemore, perhaps a future 30/30 man; and a catcher in his prime with back-to-back years of a .300-plus batting average who has averaged 94 RBI the past three seasons in Victor Martinez. All three return for 2007, and they'll be joined by two infielders -- second baseman Josh Barfield and third baseman Andy Marte -- who each cracked Baseball America's top 100 prospects at least once in the past three seasons. In other words, the Indians' offense is loaded with upside.

So where did it all go wrong in 2006, then? Point to the pitching. The American League's No. 1 team in ERA in 2005 (3.61), the Indians' staff slipped to sixth place with a 4.41 mark. Cliff Lee was unable to repeat an 18-win, 3.79-ERA campaign; Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson were noticeable downgrades from Kevin Millwood and Scott Elarton, respectively. And perhaps most importantly, the bullpen collapsed, going from a major league leading 2.80 ERA and No. 3 rankings in saves (51) and blown saves (15) in 2005 to 24th in ERA (4.66), 30th in saves (24) and 21st in blown saves (23). The middle relief simply didn't get the ball into closer Bob Wickman's hands in the early stages, and then after Wickman's trade to Atlanta, Fernando Cabrera, Rafael Betancourt and Tom Mastny alternated their ineffective ways in trying to step up and fill the closer void.